When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God by T M Luhrmann

Review by Laurie Chisholm

This book is the result of anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s study of a newly emerged religious movement: the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Traditionally, anthropologists go to remote tribes that have had little or no contact with modern civilization, live with them and try to understand their myths, rituals and world view. With few such tribes remaining, it is understandable that anthropologists now turn their attention to unusual groups within modern society. Tanya Luhrmann has already published one study on contemporary Londoners who practice ritual magic and another on American psychiatry. In her most recent book (2012), she turns her attention to the Vineyard, a movement that began in the 70s and now has more than 1,500 churches world-wide, including 18 in New Zealand. Approaching her subject matter as an anthropologist committed to “participant observation,” she immersed herself in the Vineyard with impressive determination, attending worship, conferences and prayer groups, even trying out their prayer practices under the guidance of a spiritual counselor.
She carried out in-depth interviews of many members, used questionnaires to provide quantitative statistical data, and even conducted experiments with them to see how prayer practices altered their psychology.
Generally, Sea of Faith is only interested in evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist Christianity as a negative contrast to a modern, liberal spirituality that takes evolution, modern science and historical-critical study of the bible seriously. This book is grounds for re-thinking that attitude. Its aim is to explain to non-believers how “sensible, educated people [are able to] believe in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives.” The central focus of the Vineyard churches, at least in Luhrmann’s presentation of them, is to cultivate a relationship with God through prayer and to learn to discern the voice of God in the multiplicity of what is going on in one’s mind. Luhrmann, not herself a Christian or a “believer,” is well aware that this strikes the modern skeptic as completely weird and that it is “‘as alien to liberal Christianity as Mongolian shamanism.” She has written this book because she believes that she can “explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real” and hopes that this will help to bridge the great divide in contemporary society between skeptics who do not understand believers and believers who do not understand the skeptics. Indeed, she has chosen the Vineyard specifically because its view of God as supernaturally present is dramatically at odds with modern secular views of reality.
But does this God actually exist? Although she admits to having “complicated philosophical thoughts about whether God was real,” Luhrman disclaims any ability to answer this question as an anthropologist; the social sciences can only describe the human side of the relationship with God, “and so I will not presume to know ultimate reality. I will not judge whether God is or is not present to the people I came to know.” Having as it were bracketed the question of the reality of God and set it to one side, she is free to explore just how this experiential faith functions. Her aim is not to extract from the Vineyard a concept of God as a subject for intellectual debate but to understand what is involved in the Vineyard congregants’ experience. Luhrman is at pains to describe this experience carefully and in detail, with many examples from her interviews, and with the help of a number of psychological models. The Vineyard are interested in people learning to do something rather than to think something. They learn to discriminate between their thoughts and God’s thoughts. They are training their minds to experience part of that mind as the presence of God. When a bible verse jumps out at you, when thoughts or images just pop into your head, this could well be God’s doing. Uncanny coincidences could also be God communicating with you. Some congregants even hear (rarely) the audible voice of God. (Luhrman explains that such “sensory overrides” are in fact quite common in the general population and argues that they are different from the voices that psychotic people hear.)
The results of her investigation are subtle and many-sided, so not easy to summarise. First, Luhrman was surprised to discover that far from having a firm and unshakeable faith, congregants’ awareness of God takes shape out of an exquisite awareness of doubt. Vineyard congregants are well aware that the society they live in finds their talk of God incredible.
Insoo Kim believes in his God. But he cannot escape his doubt. It is part of his social world.
It is part of the way he comes to know God.
..The playfulness and paradox of this new religiosity does for Christians what postmodernism, with its doubt-filled, selfaware, playful intellectual style, did for intellectuals (p322).
Second, the God of the Vineyard Fellowship is very different from the God of traditional evangelicals like Billy Graham. Judgment and hell-fire are not present. Things are more experiential, more like psychotherapy. God is like an intimate friend, a perfect friend in an imperfect world.
Congregants talk to God about the most trivial matters of everyday life, even asking for an opinion on which dress to wear.
Third, this God is a little bit like a young child’s imaginary companion. Young children often have an imaginary companion, or a stuffed animal that must be fed and bathed and tucked in to bed. They have, says Gregory Bateson, a play frame and a reality frame. Vineyard congregants think like this about God, except that their play frame also involves a reality claim. This is like ritual ceremonies in all cultures; according to the historian Johan Huizinga, in sacred play the distinction between belief and make-believe breaks down.
Fourth, this God is like an internalised therapist. Heinz Kohut thinks that the benefits of psychotherapy come when a client learns to experience the therapist as an internal “object” that is loving and caring.. The client is able to “act and think and feel as if always aware of that therapist’s loving concern.” Those not needing therapy effectively already have helpful, soothing self-objects. Lurhman refers to the anthropologist Rebecca Lester, who concluded that nuns learn to carry God internally as one who loves, cares, and attends always.
Fifth, this God is “hyperreal.” We live in a world where the media image of Marilyn Munroe is far more vivid, present, “real” than the actual reality of Marilyn Munroe as an actual person. That media image is said to be hyperreal. In a similar way, much modern literature often has a style described as “magical realism.”
“It is my belief that the God of late twentieth and early twenty-first century has become imagined as magically real because that way of imagining God helps those who wish to hang on to God manage the doubts that surround them. This God is so real, so accessible, and so present, and so seamlessly blends the supernatural with the everyday, that the paradox places the need for the suspension of disbelief at the center of the Christian experience. The supernatural is presented as the natural, and yet the believer knows that it is not.
It is in effect, a third kind of epistemological commitment: not materially real like tables and chairs; not fictional, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; but a different conceptual space. (p.321).
Luhrman tells the story of how this type of religion has emerged. Pentecostal Christians were initially just a small group at the time when fundamentalism rebelled against historical criticism of the bible. Fundamentalism lost credibility, for example in the Scopes trial. Then new evangelicals emerged (pre-eminently in the Fuller Theological Seminary), softening the stance on the literal infallibility of the bible. The counterculture of the 60s gave rise first to hippies and then to the Jesus freaks, Christian hippies (a story Luhrman thinks has not yet been properly told). Finally, a new type of religion emerged, a merging of Jesus freaks, the new evangelicals and the charismatics; more experiential, more therapeutic.
Why has there been growth in belief in a personal God?
Luhrman suggests that it is a response to the attenuation in meaningful personal relationships in modern society and to the decline in civic engagement. An intensely intimate relationship with God compensates for the inadequacies of real-world social contact.
Many of us have friends or relatives who are conservative Christians and find it difficult to relate to them. We are turned off by triumphalistic enthusiasm for their faith, their unsubtle attempts to convert. They do not want to hear our doubts or be exposed to our questioning. If we voice our personal convictions, they will be attacked as inadequate and unbiblical. Lurhmann acts as a skilled mediator. She describes an aspect of Vineyard life/practice/belief, then translates this into language we can appreciate, often providing parallels from the bible or describing ways that liberal thinkers have expressed similar ideas. Her aim is of course not to convert us, just to help us understand.
The liberal assumption is that we are in the midst of a process of secularisation. Religion is disappearing; the most one can hope for is that something like a liberal Christianity survives. On this assumption, movements like the Vineyard are temporary setbacks in the onward march of civilization towards the end of the era of religion. Yet what we are seeing is an enormous growth in belief in a personal God. In 1996, 39% of Americans said that they were born again. 88% of Americans pray to God. The liberal churches are declining, churches like the Vineyard are growing.
There are pockets of liberal Christianity left in America and in Europe, but Christianity around the world has exploded in its seemingly least liberal and most magical form—in charismatic Christianities that take biblical miracles at face value and treat the Holy Spirit as if it had a voltage. (p.302.)
We may lament that they show so little understanding of the bible in its context, that they are not interested in intellectual questions about the faith, that their Godconcept does not face up to the issues modernity raises, but conservative religion continues to evolve and it has marketed itself much more successfully than liberal religion. Uncomfortable though it is for us, the reality is that in the future, institutional religion is going to look more like the Vineyard than the mainline liberal Protestant churches.



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